In a world populated by psychics and shape-shifters, a war of ideas is a literal struggle. Nobody is more familiar with that than the X-men. Beyond having more psychics than most superhero teams, the X-men’s fight for peace and understanding in a world that hates and fears them is built upon a foundation of ideas. With supervillains like Cassandra Nova running around, corrupting those ideas in a way that’s almost as direct as a botched lobotomy, this foundation has its share of cracks.
At the beginning of X-men Red, Jean Grey returns to a world badly in need of her uncanny compassion. Unlike previous resurrections, there’s no Cyclops, Wolverine, or Professor Xavier to guide her. She has to step up and lead the X-men forward in an environment where people don’t even need telepathic abilities to corrupt public discourse. An ill-worded tweet or an offensive viral video will achieve the same thing. It’s a daunting challenge, even for the most powerful psychics.
Tom Taylor throws a lot at Jean as she tries to find her place in X-men once more. While she succeeds in dissociating them with toxic clouds and wars against the Inhumans, she finds herself up against a familiar foe in Cassandra Nova. In less than a dozen issues, Taylor establishes Nova as the perfect villain for an era when hatred and bigotry go viral daily. She doesn’t just pollute the media landscape. She poisons the minds of the people Jean is trying to reach. It sets up a high-stakes psychic battle, but one in which the lines aren’t exclusive to the astral plane.
X-men Red #9 raises the stakes by making it more personal. Cassandra goes beyond corrupting minds. She turns Jean’s closest associates against her, namely Rachel. While battling out-of-control heroes is common in a universe populated by the Hulk, Cassandra isn’t just out to frustrate superheroes. Like Jean, she seeks to win a war of ideas and she’s willing to fight dirty.
This puts Jean in a position where omega-level telepathy only goes so far. The situation begins with messy skirmishes and elaborate schemes, but culminates in an attack with which Cassandra attempts to land a finishing blow. Her goal is clear. She wants to hurt Jean more than any cosmic force could. She dispenses with the subtlety and tact that she employed in previous issues. She wants to turn Jean’s greatest strengths into fatal weaknesses.
However, X-men Red #9 isn’t all about psychic battles and corrupting thoughts. The main clash only takes up half the story. The other half supplements that spectacle by re-affirming how much Jean influences the overall X-men mythos. Like Charles Xavier, some of Jean Grey’s most defining traits involve how she affects others. While that often puts her in the middle of some ugly love triangles, this same impact helps contrast her with the weaponized hatred of Cassandra Nova.
Before she throws her first telepathic punch, however, Jean’s teammates go out of their way to fight for her. It leads to some dramatic moments with Gabby and Storm, who do more than just remind Jean that she’s not alone, even in a psychic war. They make clear that they know what they’re up against. They see what Cassandra does to Rachel and that doesn’t scare them in the slightest. They still want to stand by her.
On the surface, it seems like another tired cliché about the power of friendship. Within larger context of X-men Red, though, it provides a critical contrast between Jean and Cassandra. From the first issue, Cassandra presents herself as a skilled manipulator and a hardened cynic. Everyone and everything is just a tool waiting to be used. Nobody is truly genuine — they’re just a product of their influences.
With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder why Cassandra lacks a close-knit team of her own. Why should she trust them with her never-ending efforts to poison vulnerable minds? On her own, she’s still very effective. Jean and her team find themselves on the wrong end of multiple conflicts over the course of X-men Red. In the process, however, they also demonstrate just how wrong Cassandra is on a fundamental level.
Beyond simply being her friends, Jean’s teammates freely choose to help her at every turn, without hesitation. They don’t need to be mind-controlled or telepathically influenced. Just having faith in them and the vision that Charles Xavier first espoused is sufficient. Instead of being a liability in a war of telepathy and ideas, it’s an immense strength.
Jean puts that strength on full display, along with plenty of cunning, in her confrontation with Cassandra Nova. It’s not the most elaborate psychic battle ever fought in the pages of X-men. In fact, it feels somewhat rushed. It certainly doesn’t rank up there with some of Charles Xavier’s battles against Shadowking, but it gets the point across. It makes the case that Jean’s ideas are stronger than Cassandra Nova’s.
Once again, Taylor highlights some of Jean Grey’s most defining qualities and demonstrates how they can double as effective battle tactics in a psychic war. The end result is not definitive. Cassandra Nova is still intact and even more motivated to destroy both Jean and her vision. The war of ideas is still ongoing and can’t only be fought on a psychic plane. The most critical achievement of X-men Red #9 is drawing the battle lines and contrasting the two sides.
Cassandra does plenty to make her point in the previous eight issues. Jean finally gets a chance to make hers while bringing out the best in all those around her. That’s she’s able to do this without getting caught up in another love triangle is all the more remarkable.